The Knicks Bench: Best Seat In Town

[Cazzie Russell joined the 1966-67 New York Knicks touted as the NBA’s highest-paid rookie and its next superstar. Cazzie’s superstardom never happened. He struggled as a rookie, finally found his rhythm at small forward, then broke his ankle. The higher-paid “Dollar” Bill Bradley took Cazzie’s starting job, which launched a then-favorite debate around New York’s five boroughs: Who’s better? Bradley or Russell? 

Though this debate was never settled inside New York’s corner bakeries and taverns, it was a wrap inside Madison Square Garden during the Knicks’ 1969-70 championship season. Dollar Bill was the starter; Cazzie was the team’s instant offense off the bench. 

This article, from February 1970, celebrates Cazzie and his fellow Knick benchmates as the very best non-starters in the business. The article was penned by the great Dave Klein and ran in Jock New York, a long-deceased publication that ONLY our Ray Lebov would have stashed somewhere in his Sacramento home. Thanks, Ray!]

Dave Stallworth

Call them the Bench That Never Is, since they play far too much and far too well to be termed reserves. They are the All-Americas and the All-Nobodies who have become the catalysts behind the chemical detonation known as the New York Knicks. 

The bench . . . the most wondrous, daredevil, phantasmagoric collection of non-starters ever to dismantle the cool of the NBA. 

The bench thinks this way: “Man, when they mess up with us, they’re in a world of trouble.” That is Dave Stallworth, and Dave the Rave never lies. Not ever. “If we come in with the other team behind, we are going to run them into the floor. We are going to burn them bad. Then the first five can come back in and finish them off. And, man, we get back to the bench and laugh and yell and stomp our feet. It’s what we get paid to do, and there ain’t no team in this world has a bench as good as ours. We got our own special pride in it, and ourselves.”

For Stallworth, of course, this is all gravy. All of it. Breathing is gravy. He came to the Knicks as a top draft choice via Wichita State, and he played a year and a piece of another and then he started getting the chest pains. And one night in Frisco, they took him to a hospital because the stabbing, shooting pains were worse and were a week without stopping, and they told him he was having a heart attack. 

“It was like they were talking to somebody else,” he says today, “like there was somebody else near me. Not me, not that. All I ever really knew was playing ball. Where I came from, in Dallas, we ran with the crowd that was [football stars] Spider Lockhart and Mel Farr and Miller Farr and Stone Jackson. All we did was play. Football, baseball, track, basketball. Man, I ran a 9.8 hundred and I couldn’t make our high school sprint team. Stone and Spider, they went 9.5 in sneakers. 

“And then these doctors were saying my heart was bad. Well, I know they were right. They’re smart men. But they didn’t know how important this game is to me.”

It is so important, he took the big chance. They gave him the choice. When he was rested and doctored and medicated after they could do no more, they said: “Try it if you want to, but we’d rather not approve it.” Dave tried it, slowly at first, then harder, finally all out. 

“I had to,” he said, and his fingers tightened around the coffee cup he held in his huge hands. “I had to do it. This is me, Dave Stallworth, the basketball player. Not the office clerk. Not anything else.”

So now, Stallworth is back, shooting the long one-handers and the graceful, long jumpers and running harder and faster and longer than any of the rest. He seems to take pride in his stamina, as if he has something to prove. But he is wrong. He has already proven more than most men ever get the chance to prove. That he is a man, and that he directed his destiny. 

“Sure, I like to play every minute of every game. But I can’t. No one can. No one is that valuable to this team, because wherever you look, we can fill in. I know what I can do, and Coach Holzman knows what I can do, and as long as I get my chance to do it, I’m happy. Just so long as we can win, what else is there?” This is Dave Stallworth who, clearly, is a Knick.

The bench . . . 

Irish Mike Riordan

The bench works at its job this way: “Yeah, I knew the odds were heavy, but basketball has been good to me and I wanted to try it.” The man talking now is Irish Mike Riordan, the foul-giver, the crowd-pleaser, the hardest driver in the NBA, the doer, the involved.

“I worked all summer for the New York City Housing Authority,” he says. “It was ghetto work, black kids kind of work. We’d go around and run clinics in all the bad spots, me and Nate and Freddy Crawford and Emmette Bryant. Sure, they’re all black. I was the only white guy. But this trouble, this death-trap those kids are in, it’s more than color. It’s narcotics and jail and murder, and if sports, basketball, can help them get out, I’ll go. Why not?”

So Mike showed the black kids how to play defense and make the move that sets up the driving layups and he talked to them. “Mostly, they didn’t know I was a white man, they just knew I was a basketball player, a Knick. But sometimes, sure, one of the Panthers will start needling me. I remember one day, one of these cats comes up and says, ‘Hey, white boy, what you doin’ on my turf?’ I told him I was just playin’ ball, just trying to help. He asked me why. So I told him it was because I cared, and because shooting and blood isn’t the answer. He smiled, and I think he liked the words. You can do a lot with words.”

You can also do a lot with a heart and a drive and a dream. “I played at Providence College,” says Mike, “and we had a kid named Jimmy Walker, and he did all the shooting. But it was the best way we had to win, because they couldn’t cover him, and if they were stupid enough to go head-to-head with him, we were smart enough to let ‘em.

“But we didn’t get a chance to shoot, so the scouts really never knew if we could. The Celtics made me a supplementary draft choice, the 11th round, for 1967, but I couldn’t do it there. Then the Knicks tried me in June of 1967 when they had the big public workout for Bradley. They called us in to the Garden, and we scrimmaged two or three days. Mostly it was to get him in shape, but Frazier and I were the only rookies, and I guess I did well. I know I tried hard. Anyway, the Knicks told me there was no room, but they would arrange for me to play in the Eastern League with Scranton. 

“Sure, I went. It was a chance. That’s kind of a tough life, because the guys play weekends—two games—and they drive or take a team bus, and it’s long hours. It’s also shooting because they get from 50 to 200 bucks a game, and it’s points that make a guy popular. But it’s a lot of running and contact, and I found out I could shoot. So did the Knicks. They asked me to camp in 1968.”

So Mike became the guy who was sent in to foul, to give one point for two. “I knew why I played, but I knew I was playing, and with Coach Holzman you do anything he says. He remembers. He is also a hell of a coach. He communicates, teaches fundamentals, makes each man aware of his job. He tells us it’s important to come in and turn the game around, and he means it, and you know he means it. You feel like you’re important. 

“Like everybody else, I’d like to start. But on this team, the way Red runs it, it isn’t important to start. I like to think I can, and I have to hope that someday I will, but it really isn’t important. That’s for college kids. We are involved in something important to all of us, and if we can win the NBA championship, that’s all that matters.”

And so the kid with the look of the Auld Sod written clearly on his elongated face, the kid who went from Holy Cross High in Flushing to Providence with Joe Mullaney, to Scranton, and finally to New York. The kid who wakes up drowsy crowds in Atlanta and Seattle enjoys his life. For now. “Sure, you think about that expansion draft, but not often. It’s too much fun this season to think about that.”

Riordan wants to be the third guard because the team will keep at least that many. But it depends on too many factors, like Dick Barnett being 33 years old, and like Johnny Warren, the Iceman from St. John’s, being a number 1 draft choice and like Frazier being entrenched. But not now. “Now I need tickets,” he says with a grin. “I have three each game. But I’m a local boy, and there are my parents then my brothers and about 15 aunts and uncles and then cousins and my mother-in-law, and it comes to like 50 people. You don’t have any, do you? No, huh. Well, nobody does these days.” 

In that respect, it’s tough being a Knick. 

Cazzie Russell

The bench is also Cazzie Russell, and Cazzie does not belong on a bench. He belongs, rather, on the court shooting up those radar-guided jumpers, going electric all at once and throwing in four or five in a row to open up a game or to break the heart of a team that held a lead. “He’s as tough to stop when he’s hot as anyone in this league,” says Dave DeBusschere, one of the first five. “Anyone, and I think he likes it better with a hand in his face. He likes a challenge.”

Cazzie Is a finely-tuned point machine. He is the one to whom Red can turn, say “get something started” and then watch as he trots in and takes the game by the throat and clutches and shakes it until it comes up right. His is an almost mystical attachment to the game, his shots seem to come from within, the propulsion emotional, his talent an inborn gift, his moves all instinct and silk and desire. 

His reactions and his reflexes and his pure, desperate, compulsive love for this game make him the most dynamic of them all. He is an explosion searching for a fuse, a cacophony of sound seeking shrieking release. 

But Cazzie broke his ankle early in 1968-69 season, and Red put Bradley at forward and Bill blossomed. He did it all, and now he can’t be moved out. And Red has found a way for Cazzie to be the biggest aid in the world. He sends him in when he needs fast points, and Cazzie does get his playing time, like 20 minutes or more in almost every game. But Cazzie would be a starter on any other team in the league, he was a starter here until his ankle. 

People say Cazzie doesn’t play the team defense as well as Bradley and that is why he doesn’t start. It might be true, but Cazzie is a shooter. He is a splendid point-maker, at times impossible to stop, and Cazzie does it for the Knicks in an invaluable, we-need-you kind of way. 

Another one on the bench had been with four teams in less than two years before New York found him. He was never a factor anywhere else. Clumsy and awkward, with bad hands and little speed, he provided more comic relief than actual support. 

He is called Nate Bowman. 

Nate Bowman

With his flowering sideburns and his marvelous Fu Manchu lip, he became Phil Foster’s favorite player—“my guy”—which is really no compliment at all. It is being laughed at. But all at once, in this magical time, he has become Chamberlain and Thurmond and the other Russell, and Garden crowds know it. And there have been nights—unreal, beautiful nights—when nearly 20,000 Knick-niks have stood and madly roared approval for the work done by Nate the Great    . . . Nate the Snake.

The rest of the bench has purpose, too; Warren is learning , and he didn’t expect much this first year, but when he goes in and lofts that high jumper and passes off crisply, Red sits back and smiles. 

Bill Hosket, the Olympic Games hero from Ohio State, could be Cousy’s forward or Mullaney’s forward or any other coach’s forward in this NBA, but Hosket plays behind DeBusschere and Stallworth at one spot, and he is also the center behind Bowman, who is behind Willis Reed.

Donnie May is a forward with more moves than Jill St. John. He would make it, except for Bradley. Or Cazzie. You see the problem. 

Hosket and May, who played high school ball together, who pal around on the road, who with Riordan play one-on-one games before the crowds file into the Garden. They’ll make it, but not yet, and that they haven’t lends credence to the “super” tag on the Knicks and proves the “best anywhere” label on the bench. 

There was a game in Atlanta when the season was still new, the game the Knicks won to tie the record streak. The game in which they blew a good Hawks‘ team clear off the court, with a 35-5 humiliation in the third quarter. It was done with Riordan in for Barnett and Cazzie for Bradley and Stallworth for DeBusschere. 

Frazier stole the ball as fast as the Hawks could take it out of bounds, and Cazzie got hot and it was sheer devastation. 

So much so that a man from Atlanta looked over to a man from New York and said, plaintively honest: “Y’all planning to lose again this year?” 

And because of this bench, the man from New York really had some trouble laughing it off. The thought stuck. Did the Knicks plan to lose a game, a single, solitary game, all year? Sure they did. Of course, they had to.

The man with the southern drawl began to write his account of the disaster. 

“Break up that Knicks bench,” he wrote. “It’s the only way to balance out the NBA.”

Try arguing with that kind of logic.  

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